PHOENIX – Parents could choose how their children would be taught, under two bills approved yesterday by a legislative committee.

One measure would let parents remove limited-English students from any language program.

The other would allow parents to place their children in phonics- based reading classes.

The Senate Education Committee voted 4-3 in favor of both bills, along party lines. Republicans favored the measures, which had already passed the House.

The committee increased to five years the time that limited- English students could stay in English training programs. Under HB 2532, the state would then cut off extra funding for those children – about $150 each. But students could petition to stay in the programs.

Previously, the bill would have allowed students to stay in bilingual education or English as a Second Language programs for a maximum of four years, even though educators say it takes from four to seven years to master English.

Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D-Phoenix, tried unsuccessfully to get rid of the time limit altogether.

Of about 10 representatives of education groups who had signed up to speak, only one favored the measure – the state Department of Education. State officials say the measure would give students enough time to learn a language.

Others proposed forming a committee to study English language programs.

Tucson educators said they were discouraged by the vote, even though the committee upped the time limit.

“I’m not against accountability. I’m disappointed that the research and data has been ignored,” said Jean Favela, bilingual education director for Sunnyside Unified School District. “I don’t think they have any idea how this will impact the children.”

The bill let stand a provision that would let parents remove their children from bilingual or ESL programs.

Now, districts are required by law to provide specialized services to limited-English students who have yet to pass a series of tests. But parents can request that their children go into bilingual, ESL or individual education plans.

The other bill, HB 2130, would force schools to start phonics instruction for any first- through third-grade child whose parent requests it. The measure sets aside $1.6 million for teacher training.

Rep. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, said she sponsored the bill in response to parents’ concerns that their children were failing to learn to read in their current classes, which lacked phonics.

Across the state, many classes use the “whole language” method, which includes phonics but focuses on recognition of whole words instead of letter-by-letter sounds.

“It seems for us that phonics is the superior technique,” said Sen. Tom Patterson, R-Phoenix.

Johnson warned lawmakers that a lack of reading skills often leads to crime.

“It’s my contention, if we could get that type of reading program (phonics) in schools . . . we will not have nearly the dropout rate or the juvenile delinquency rate,” she told committee members.

But others said the bill is unnecessary because the state standards already require phonics instruction, and parents already have educational choices, through open enrollment and charter schools. Also, the bill precludes parents from requesting “whole language” or other methods.

“Parents have a choice as long as they are choosing the choice we prescribe for them,” said Sen. Mary Hartley, D-Phoenix. “It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

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